Alumni Spotlight: Joe Wagner

by Allison Johnson

Joe Wagner, class of 2000, grew up in Napa Valley amidst the vineyards of his family’s estate. He first heard about CRMS from a friend of his brother’s, and those stories of a school out in the Colorado Rockies with hands-on learning, outdoor trips, and challenging athletics spoke to him. Only looking back now, however, does he realize the full impact the school had on him.

“My father instilled that you don’t rest on your laurels and you should try to make things better and constantly challenge yourself,” he said. “I didn’t realize when I went to CRMS how much that played a role in the curriculum as well, but it was magnified compared to what I had at home. I left much more capable in those ways than I came in.”

After graduating from CRMS, Wagner rode a wave of adventure, talent, and serendipity to his own success in the wine industry. In ten years, he went from living in a trailer and growing table grapes in Mexico to experimenting in a corner of the family cellars with Pinot Noir to producing half a million cases of wine annually. Today Wagner owns Copper Cane Wine & Provisions and is a staple at Aspen’s Food & Wine Classic. This year he made time to return to CRMS.

“I’m quite impressed,” he said. “The facilities upgrades and the new buildings were the biggest surprises. The expansion was done really thoughtfully and all for a great purpose. It was really cool to see that the school has progressed in such a large way.”

Even with all the changes, some elements have remained the same. The barn is just as rustic and beautiful as when he took salsa dance classes there. “What I loved about CRMS was that if we had something that we wanted to try out and we got a group of people together, the faculty would work with us to create a program.”

Visiting the dorms also inspired memories of his boarding-school experiences from dorm pranks to household chores. His least favorite household chore was to clean the bathrooms, but he rose to the challenge and even taught his peers how to not clog a toilet. “I felt like a parent, but it made my life easier in the long run. I’m still good at cleaning bathrooms.”

CRMS continues to influence his life today. The corporate culture at Copper Cane Wine & Provisions reflects many of CRMS’s values around challenge and hard work, and mountain bikes hang from the ceiling. He’s continued to pursue an interest in photography and regularly takes his six young children hiking and skiing. He looks forward to introducing them to the back country as well. Also on the bucket list is to someday create his own forge and return to blacksmithing. He fondly recalls that class along with learning how to debate in AO Forbes’s class. Kayo Ogilby’s geology class had a lasting impact as well.

“I loved the interaction we had with nature and what we were reading about,” he said. “A lot of that knowledge translated over when I got into vineyard management and had to understand soils and how they developed over time.”

Even his experiences on the work crews taught valuable life skills that still come in handy. “I still dig fence posts for fun. There are a lot of fence posts to be put in for vineyard installation.”

Most of all, though, Wagner remembers how well the boarding experience prepared him for adulthood.

“Having independence and accountability for yourself at a young age – with guardrails, that’s the beauty of CRMS – that set me on a course for wanting to get my life started. I was able to dedicate myself to a career and a family at an early age. If I hadn’t had the experience of CRMS, I would be delayed in that process today. That was a huge part of entering the world as an adult in a much more secure and prepared way.”

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